Bulgarian Corruption

According to Business insider Bulgaria is still the most corrupt country in Europe. In this Blog I’ll explore what this means for living and working here.

I moved to Bulgaria in 2003. For all intents and purposes Bulgaria was a failed state. After the colapse of socialism the country was a Mafiocracy. Might had right and the robber barons ruled the roost. It was a strange and sometimes scary time. My family and I wanted to build a factory in Bulgaria due to cost and location but there were red flags popping up everywhere. A meeting with the Bulgarian ambassador in London ended with him suggesting that if we did invest we would lose all our money and probably end up shot.

With this warning ringing in their ears my family called me back from the Hindu Kush and sent me to Bansko with a suitcase full of money and a business plan. Bulgaria wasn’t as dangerous as running around the Afghan border and there were less guns. That said it wasn’t exactly Ibiza either.

In my first 3 years here I had two guns pulled on me, I was extradited twice, refused entry once and threatened by various officials countless time. I never paid a bribe, I never bent the knee. I fought and fought and fought every step of the way. My main motivation was that if I paid up even once I would be paying for the rest of the time I was here so I didn’t. It wasn’t easy and at times it was unpleasant but I stuck to my position that I would never pay.

Bent coppers and civil servants were pretty easy to get around. Simple jobs took weeks, paperwork was a Sisyphean task, everything was made as difficult as possible to encourage you just to pay up to get the job done. But we just plugged away at it. “Oh you also want form B filled out? No problem! A copy of my mothers birth certificate? No problem! Unicorn tears? No Problem!!!” They wanted it I got it and slowly slowly we moved on.

The biggest problem was always immigration. The law was grey enough that the vile little rat of a man who ran the immigration office in Blagoevgrad had a free reign to squeeze you as much as he liked. The 5 other foreigners in south west Bulgaria all paid up. If you wanted to live here it would cost you 200 euros and a bottle of scotch every year. If you didn’t pay the little toad would reject your application over and over until you over stayed your visa and then he would kick you out.

I would drive down to Greece get a new visa and then try again the next day. When he worked out what I was doing he would ring the border guards and they would try and make it impossible for me to come back into BG.

The list of civil servants trying to make an easy buck on the back of foreigners was very long. From the fire brigade to the hotel inspectors, the health and safety office to the tax man, everyone wanted a little brown envelope full of cash to leave you alone. Like a cloud of mosquitoes they swarmed around desperately trying to get their drop of blood.

Bulgaria Today

I’ve been here 18 years now. I still haven’t paid anyone anything. My family has been threatened, my business has been threatened and I’ve been threatened but still I didn’t pay. As the years have gone by things have improved. It’s been a very long time since anyone was gunned down in the streets and it has been a long time since a civil servant has asked me for money.

The police do their jobs and so do most of the civil servants. The paperwork is still excessive but not impossible and the taxes are low so we carry, happily, on. The vast majority of foreigners in BG now don’t even come across corruption in their daily lives. If you open a business the paperwork is annoying but a good accountant can deal with that. If you just want to live here Bulgaria is pretty much paradise. Low cost of living, great food and wonderful nature. Add to that the lovely people who you meet every day and there isn’t much to dislike.

Immigration

Today with some trepidation I went to immigration in Blagoevgrad. I didn’t take a lawyer or a translator. I did take every document I possess and I was 100% sure that it was going to be nightmare. I warned my son that it was going to be a horrible day. I parked the car around the corner from the immigration office at 9am and when we got round the corner I saw a queue of over 100 people, my heart sank. It really was going to be a nightmare.

As we got closer to the queue I noticed all the people were Bulgarians, so just to check I strode into the office. The EU application desk didn’t have anyone waiting at it. Being British I expected them to tell me to go and wait outside. Nope the sweet smiling lady said it was ok and started asking for documents.

Some I had, some I didn’t have. Every time we came across one I didn’t have she just smilingly asked if maybe I had something else similar. Slowly but surely we put together a dossier. She pointed me in the direction of an office down the street that would copy all of the documents and told me to come back.

Armed with my slab of paperwork she started talking me through the forms. Tick here, sign there, fill out this, fill out that. With the paitence of a saint she guided me through it all. A credit card payment and a photo, a sweet smile and she sent me on my way.

By 11am I was sat in cafe Yoanna, slightly stunned and just a little smug, eating icecream and drinking coffee.

Bulgaria WAS a failed state

Now it’s not! In the last 15 years Bulgaria has transformed itself beyond belief. Running a business here is simpler than most EU countries. For the common man corruption is a thing of the past. Yes there is paperwork but lawyers and accountants are very reasonably priced especially if you are a small or micro business.

The days of police stopping you for no reason and asking for 20lv are long gone. I can’t remember the last time a civil servant started telling me that I had a big problem that only he could fix. In my every day life now, I always assume incompetence rather than conspiracy.

I am not saying Bulgaria isn’t corrupt. If you want to buy ten thousand second hand kalashnikovs I could put you in touch with a man. You want to buy a Nuclear power station? Probably possible. Did the ex mayor of Bansko build a 2 million lv house on a 2 thousand lv salary? That’s the chat. BUT for us, the little guys, Bulgaria isn’t really corrupt at all. For us Bulgaria is paradise!

Walking on Edelweiss

Co-living Bansko

Walking on Edelweiss

There comes a moment on most mountaineering routes in Pirin when you will come across an Edelweiss. These beautiful little flowers are the symbol of mountaineers around the world. They live high up on cliff faces away from man. At one and the same time they are super hardy and super delicate. Growing in tiny cracks they thrive in the most inhospitable environments. While they are able to live where nothing else can, they are not very robust when it comes to contact. Pick their flowers and they die, step on them, knock them or disturb them in any way and they die. For me spotting Edelweiss on a route is the sign that we are somewhere wild.

Banski Suhodol

As you look up from Bansko Pirin dominates. Todorka with her pistes. Flat topped Vihren and oh so pretty Kutelo.  Next to these lonely giants Banski Suhodol tends to be ignored. Suhodol blends into the horizon all but forgotten. Koncheto and Koteshki chal demmand the viewers attention, while Suhodol fades into the foreground.

For Mr Davies and I Banski Suhodol has burnt brightly in our imagination for over a decade. The summit is of no consequence in the grand scheme of things. Dropping down from the summit is a ridge. A long ridge, a ridge that plunges down into the valley below buttressing the main wall of Pirin. This ridge of marble has been crying out to us to be explored.

We have visited the base of the North Ridge of Suhodol many times. Trying to find a route to the bottom of the ridge has been challenging. The valley of Suhodol is remote and little visited, the path sketchy in places and the distances a little daunting. After a few false starts we finally managed to get to the bottom of the ridge 2 weeks ago. I hid some gear in a cave and comitted to climbing it thisweek.

Normally mountaineering is a game of study. You read up on the route. Talk to people who have done it before. Discuss, analyse plot and plan and then go for it. In Pirin the game is very different, the info about routes is at best sparse and in the case of most of our routes here nonexistant. The best info I could find on the route was “It’s a little flakey” and ” I had a look from the top and it doesn’t look nice”.  With this wealth of info we set off at 5am on Saturday morning.

Coliving Bansko

The Approach

We parked the car at the end of a dirt road just as the first light of dawn made it possible to see the path. The hike up Suhodol is just stunning. The path is little used and wiggles its way up and across a stream bed that in turn wriggles down through old forest. for three hours we climbed up through forest, then kleck and finally out into meadows filled with snow fields. From the first patch of snow we hacked our way up through cliffs and gullies thick with kleck until at 9am, just as it was starting to get hot we got to the bottom of the first pyramid.

The Banski Suhodol ridge is made up of two main features. A pyramid of marble about 3 pitches high that rises alone above the boulder fields and then drops again to the foot of the main ridge. Then the main ridge rises in steep steps all the way to the summit at 2884m.

coliving Bansko

The Pyramid

The pyramid was a pleasant little climb there were hints of the troubles to come but all in all it was fun. A few easy moves a little, scramble, the odd wobbly rock and some flakey pieces that came away in your hands but nothing to write home about. We had been assuming that the whole game would have been on good clean marble but were not really bothered by a few crappy hand holds and some loose rock.

As we prepared to climb the main ridge we were joking about how nice it was to be climbing on rock that clearly never saw many people. A normal popular route is polished by many hands and feet. Belay spots are clear from regular use and hand holds are marked by patches of chalk. Here there was none of that. the rock was old and untouched, pristine and wild. There was a feeling that we were the first people to climb here and it gave us a thrill of excitement.

co living bansko

The Route

Mr Davies is a little older than I and I am a little rounder than most. As a pair we are not a typical mountaineering team. We have done a lot together and understand eachother perfectly. Di leads and I carry! We swung back into the easy routine of moving up the rock pretty quickly. Di as always cursing and swearing his way ever upwards, mostly free climbing the first two pitches as there was nowhere to put in protection.

Di is a slow and careful climber, even more so without protection. Many years of experience mean he can route find by smell and belay from rotten spots confidently. Old injuries and even older bones means he climbs slowly but very safely. I’m a strong climber if not confident enough to lead unknow routes . Our progress was thus a dance of slow analytical leads followed by me rapidly catching up once the route was discovered.

I started to get nervous on the second pitch. The rock was rotten and there was nowhere for Di to put in protection again. My belay spot was exposed and I had no way yo build a hanging belay. If Di came off the rock we were both going to fall to our deaths. With the Mantra of “Well just don’t bloddy fall” running through my head I made my way up the ridge.

From there on every pitch was the same chilling nightmare. Di leading a route with no protection and me belaying with little or no protection. To find one piece of gear fixed as I climbed up was a joy. To belay with one nut wedged into a shonky crack , blessed relief!

coliving bansko

On or 5th or 6th pitch we found a shelf to rest on. The view was exceptional as the shelf curved elegantly round the ridge onto the more exposed steep eastern side. The next few pitches hung out over this cliff with hundreds of meters of near vertical wall plunging down to the rocks below. Loose handholds, loose footholds, the sound of cursing as Di found some more rotten rock, the sound of rotten rock crashing down the face. My memories of the next few hours are blurred. Checking every hand hold 3 or 4 times became the routine. Kicking every foot hold over and over just to make sure it would take my weight. The sinking feeling as something gave way, the ecstasy of finding holds that worked. Trusting your boots to hold onto smooth rock and your tired fingers to grip little cracks focuses the mind somewhat.

After we had got up about a hundred meters it became clear there was no going back. There was no way we could set up an abseil on this rotten marble. Our only way out was over the top. The dread of finding a section that we couldn’t climb hung over me for the rest of the route. The joy of completing each pitch ever more ecstatic.

After 6 hours we came to the base of a tower of rock about 15m high. A little flat patch covered in grass made a lovely little garden at its base so here we stopped to rest. There was plenty of goat poo in the little meadow which is always a good sign and it looked like there were 2 routes around the tower as well as a little chimney over the top.  I sat and smoked, drank water and ate some flapjack.

As my mind relaxed I realised quite how tightly I was wound up. Every failed hold had focused my mind tighter and tighter. No matter how calm and logical I had been, keeping my mind focussed on making good choices, I now felt this knot clenched in my gut, exhausted from the hours of concentration. As I sat smoking my second then third cigarette I could feel my muscles tightening, aching from the weight of our bag. Cuts and bruises I hadn’t noticed now called for attention. Tiredness that I had kept at bay for so long now came flooding in. Memories of holds that had failed, rocks that had fallen footings that had slipped rushed up from the depths of my mind where I had burried them. I felt dizzy and weak, the world swam in front of me. I needed to get a grip there was no way I could climb out of here in this state.

On autopilot I set up a hanging belay with a couple of nuts and before I could compse myself Di had set off up the cliff. By the time his curses were out of ear shot my head was still spinning the little chimney he had dissapeared up looked impossible and an incredible loneliness descended on me. After what felt like an age I felt the rope come tight on my harness and I started climbing again.

I remember almost nothing of the next 25 minutes. Just flakey rock, hard moves and a bottomless cliff.  Crawling on my hands and knees across a chock stone, flowing up a pile of lightning shattered rock, a view of Di silhouetted against clear sky. The slope levelling out, walking without using my hands, tourists having a picnic. Suddenly we were stood on a path! The Tourist Path! Joy!!! So much Joy!!! I remember hugging Di full of so much joy just repeating over and over 10 years , 10 years, we did it!

Trek in Pirin 2021

There are many ways up a mountain. Sometimes the hardest routes are the most joyful. I remember seeing the first edelweiss near the bottom of the ridge, I remember making sure I didn’t touch any of the others along the way. I remember crushing one beneath my boot as I desperately scrambled to find a footing when the rock I was standing on gave way. Rightly this little flower is the symbol of mountaineers the world over.